from graphic novel guest blogger, Francisca Goldsmith:
No reader, teen or adult, need be an aesthete or an art historian to be aware of the multiplicity of styles imagery can take. Awareness is one matter, but when faced with a style that is abundant with detail, color, line and light/dark interplay, awareness is awakened to a search within the style: has a detail been overlooked? has darkness obscured hints or clues? what’s the import of the choices in the palette? This can make for busy, filling reading, rather like the groaning table of a feast.
Simplicity, on the other hand, has the opportunity to deliver with eloquence that carries no smaller a punch, but without overloading the senses. It is the first perfect summer apricot in contrast with the groaning table.
On the one hand, in Chris Ware’s new and much and rightly celebrated graphic novel, Building Stories (Pantheon, October 2012), finely filled oversized pages take us well below the surfaces of our lives, exposing in many tiny panels and multiple and various sized parts—books within a book within a package—the complexity of our surroundings. We fall into the images because we must become scaled to fit the views they provide.
On the other hand, Thien Pham—for now lesser known but no less skillful a storyteller—offers us the apricot. In barely over 100 pages, and with perhaps as few as 500 words, we are taken into a young man’s soul via such simple interactions as his quiet car ride with a friend before leaving California and trying to share the pleasure of fishing with a young woman in Japan. We do not need to understand sumo wrestling, or fishing, in order to see our hero clearly because Pham is a presenter of apricots, not five-course gourmet meals. Like Ware’s work, everything on the page counts—including the symbols in which the page numbers appear—but we are pulled in by the austerity of a few lines, a color wash, a rhythm of often silent panels where postures matter as much to the storytelling as they do in the sumo ring.
Here’s a book to dash the assumptions of those who still think that all graphic works are roughly the same in style, as well as attraction and meaning. The irony of Pham’s hero, and title, suggesting physical power and exoticism, adds just another brilliant touch to its eloquent unveiling of the apricot’s bitter but essential stone.
Adult/High School–In high school and college, Scott was a football phenomenon, but after five years of not making it into the NFL, he’s in need of jump-starting some sort of athletic career. His girlfriend has dumped him and his loose ends bring him to the decision to leave his lifelong Northern California home to train as a professional sumo wrestler in Japan. He’s got the bulk and the strength and believes that he has a chance to regain his confidence. His foray into the world of the sumo dojo isn’t just about wrestling, of course: as lowest man, he has chores in the kitchen and little pay, strict hours and communal-bathing requirements. The dojo master’s daughter, herself a product of California schools, befriends him, and the two try to share activities that are both simple and evocative. It is through Scott’s efforts to teach her the joy of fishing that readers see his personality at its fullest. Pham tells his eloquent tale of a young man’s exploration and need for return and renewal in few words and in gorgeous layouts that emulate simplicity. Chapter changes are announced only through variants in color wash over the heavily inked black-and-white cartoon panels and the design around its page numbers. The final chapter moves readers from the concrete to the abstract, subtly and with a foundation carefully built beforehand. This is excellent reading for older teens in the throes of either disappointment or plans for altering their circumstances in order to alter themselves.–Francisca Goldsmith, Infopeople Project, CA